16th Oct 2013

Back Region Media: Catchphrase Classic

This week in my Media Theory seminars we’ve been discussing the merits of American sociologist Erving Goffman’s ‘front region’ and ‘back region’ concepts for the purposes of media analysis.

To illustrate the lighter side of Goffman’s theory, I show students the famous Catchphrase ‘Snake charmer’ episode above. For those readers unfamiliar with the show, Catchphrase is a long-running ITV quiz show based on the US game show of the same name.

The clip nicely illustrates what can go wrong, completely unintentionally, when all is not what it appears. Back-region gaffes of this kind are what Goffman understands to be moments of intense embarrasment and disorientation for the front-region performers; moments when the implicit bridge dividing media performers/producers from audiences/the public collapses. What we’re left with, in this example, is a Catchphrase culture of production and viewing temporarily – but irrevocably – meshed together in intimate hilarity. Roy Walker, game-show host extraordinaire, does his best to hold the fort… but even his professionalism teeters on the brink.

Not all back-region bloomers are quite so trivial and harmless however. Political leaders like Mitt Romney (Mitt the Twit) and – in a 1980s British context – Michael Foot were clearly hampered in their ambitions by what could be called, in Goffmanian terms, weak self-presentation. That’s why included in the job description of anyone with the potential to be caught in the public eye is a need for media training and PR acumen.

George W Bush once confused Iraq with Iran; thankfully, on that occasion, the former US president’s prowess in back-region performance didn’t trigger an international crisis. One day it may well.

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